I am delighted to have been asked to speak at your annual seminar. I recognise this has been, and continues to be, a challenging time for public library services. And throughout I have been impressed by the positive and quick reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic by the sector.
Your swift response included waiving fines, extending loans, reacting to the surge in demand for e-books and e-audio, helping local shielding arrangements, and developing innovative and exciting digital ways to provide services such as Rhyme Time and Storytimes, often reaching far more people than before.
Brilliant though this was, and with all the exciting possibilities that digital provides, we know this is best delivered hand-in-hand with physical library services wherever possible. Libraries provide trusted and valued places at the heart of their communities; and from today, with the opportunity to reopen your buildings to the public, users will be able to browse once more. They’ll not only get much needed access to public computers (which you continued to provide even during the national restrictions period), but also to study spaces, which play such an important part in combating digital exclusion and reducing disadvantage.
I know that all of you want to revive the full range of varied and exciting programmes your services usually offer. But meantime it has been moving to hear about the amazing work you have done across the country to keep in touch with vulnerable users, calling up local residents, even reading over the phone to provide human contact. So I want to thank you all for your invaluable contributions to the fabulous response from library services across the country in continuing both to keep services available and to support communities.
My thanks is also due to Isobel and her team for their work in writing and publishing the Libraries Toolkit to support the restoration of library services, and for their rapid efforts to keep it updated as national and local restrictions have developed. I know how much this practical guidance document has helped the sector navigate this difficult period.
My department has been a strong advocate for libraries during COVID and has secured some notable exceptions for library services to the restrictions that have been imposed. With your support vital library services such as access to public computers continued to be available even during national restrictions, providing a real lifeline for so many people. And access to order and collect and digital reading matter, not to mention digital events, made lockdown so much more bearable! I’ve seen first hand the range of services offered. During my recent visit to Bournemouth central library I heard about how crucial the library service was to help achieve the Council’s wider objectives, acting at the heart of their communities. And I also saw a critical service in action - an adult English for speakers of other languages class.
I chair a Libraries Working Group that Libraries Connected is a member of, which has been focussing on ways that libraries can help to support their communities post-COVID. This is especially important in areas such as business support and employability, increasing digital access and skills, and supporting and engaging communities as we rebuild. There is a huge amount of good practice we can, and should, build on.
As Minister, I promote the value of investing in libraries. You provide a platform to help deliver vital public services at grassroots level. I will work across local and central government to continue to encourage a 'libraries first' approach to delivering services to communities, and to ensure the valuable contributions that library services can - and do - make to strategic outcomes for both central and local government are recognised.
However, to do so most effectively between us we must build robust, systematic, and consistent data and evidence. That will range from more straightforward measures - logging loans or events attendance - through to the more difficult task of measuring libraries’ impact, for example in reducing loneliness or helping users access jobs. We all acknowledge that public libraries contribute positively in many different ways. The challenge is to demonstrate and evidence the huge impact and value of their contribution in terms that decision-makers can relate to and track, and thereby justify the case for support and investment to them.
DCMS has been promoting the importance of libraries actively across government in such areas as literacy, digital inclusion, business support and health and wellbeing. I’d like everyone to see public libraries as an investment, rather than a cost.
I encourage library services to reflect upon the lessons learned from this year and to continue to think imaginatively about how best to meet changing user demands. Identify what has worked well and why; look to share your good and bad experiences with other library services; explore potential opportunities for collaboration with other library services with similar ambitions and aims, to increase the reach and impact of what you do. And at a local level, making the case to your council decision-makers about how libraries will help them deliver their wider ambitions for local people.
Thank you again and I hope you have an enjoyable and productive seminar.